Recently I have been working with Danish traditional women’s clothing from the islands of Fanø, Læsø and Amager, see previous blog. Collected at the turn of the 20th century, they are part of the collection at the Koldinghus Museum and will be displayed at the ’1001 Treasures The Best from the Collection of the Museum and the Town Archives’ exhibition that opens on September 28th.
All three skirts are made from wool fabric of different density. The pleats are heavily gathered at the back of the skirt, the front of the skirt is flat, some skirts feature a large functional pocket at the front that would be hidden under an apron. The unevenness of the pleats suggests that a hand method by folding the fabric on itself was used, not machines or pattern card pleating. The aprons are either gathered or pleated. My discussions with the members of the Association of Traditional Dress, Fannikergaden on the island of Fanø in Nordby (North of the island) and with the members of the community in Sønderho (South of the island) suggest that the presence/absence of pleats on the apron may point to the location of the previous owner of the dress. On the island of Fanø the gathered apron is a custom for Nordby, the pleated apron for Sønderho. This original location in turn determines the arrangements of the folds of the headscarf, that is seen as a very important part of the local identity (a separate post will discuss the making of custom mannequins with integrated headdress mounts).
All three costumes were very misshapen when they came for conservation but structurally sound with the fabric still flexible and strong enough to support its own weight. Some desiccation of the wool fabric was suggested by all three skirts and the pleated apron (Amager) shedding fibres, the silk ribbons decorating their lower edges were splitting following the pleat lines. Although previous museum storage and display conditions are partially responsible for the damage, for the dress from the island of Fanø this condition can also be explained by the traditional local practice of retaining the pleats that had the skirt tightly bound and wrapped in damp linen followed by placing it for some hours inside a baking oven kept warm by the residual heat. Heat in combination with water is known to cause changes in chemical and physical properties of the wool fibre and lead to fibre degradation. I am curious to know if this treatment used heat below 100C to prevent longitudinal shrinkage of wool fibres or if the skirts were stretched after steaming?
The traditional storage method was to arrange the skirt into a tight bundle (making it 1/5 or less of the original width of the skirt) following the pleat lines all the way from the waist line to the silk ribbons at the bottom, and tie it with a length of fabric/tape. This way of storing pleated skirts has been preserved on the island of Fanø and can be seen on display at the Maritime and Costume Museum and at the Hannes Hus (Hanna’s House) museum.
To prepare the skirts for display they were reshaped, some assisted by local humidification, others only in ambient conditions. The method used was based on the traditional way described but modified to reduce stressing the fabric of the skirt. Reshaping was done by placing the skirt on conservation card/board with the pleated side upward, with another piece of card separating the flat front from the pleated back to assist the reshaping. Pleats were folded according to their original arrangement but in a more relaxed manner than the traditional way and using the waist opening and side seams to guide how closely to arrange the pleats. The pleating stopped approx. 3/4 of the length of the skirt to avoid folding the fragile ribbons at the lower edge. The board with the skirt on it was wrapped in tissue paper and the skirt kept in this position in the studio for a week while working on other items of the costume. This minimal treatment was sufficient to reinstate the pleats, they were further supported by making a skirt underpinning for display to recreate the skirt shape of the period. For transporting the skirts to the museum for installation (1 hour drive) I used a similar system with boards arranged in 2 tiers in the box, one for the skirt, another for the apron, to prevent stress and deformation of the pleats and reduce their movement during transit.
Acknowledgements: Lise Ræder Knudsen, Head of Conservation at Konserveringscentret i Vejle, and Conni Ramskov, curator Koldinghus Museum, for permission to publish and for supporting my consultations with local communities during the project; Bente Korsgaard and The Association of Traditional Dress on the island of Fanø, Fannikergaden; staff at the Maritime and Costume Museum Fanø; Gertrud Nærø, formerly of Hannes Hus museum, Fanø for sharing their knowledge of local dress history; Olga Andersson, conservation intern, for her invaluable help during the project.